Judge L. Clifford Davis

Human Rights Activist | Class of 2007

Attorney L. Clifford Davis, whose active participation in the legal challenges of the civil rights movement began when he first sought admission to the all-white University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, went on to a distinguished career in the legal profession, one that included two decades of service as a judge in the Texas court system.

L. Clifford Davis was born on October 12, 1924, in Wilton, Arkansas. The youngest of seven children of Augustus Davis and Dora Duckett Davis, he was reared on the family farm and received his early education in the Wilton schools. The town’s educational offerings ended at eighth grade, so Davis moved to Little Rock to live with older siblings and attend Dunbar High School. He then went to Philander Smith College. He graduated in 1945 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration.

He was admitted to the historically black Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and attended for one year. Due to the high cost of Howard compared with state schools, as well as a desire to return home, he applied in 1946 for admission to the historically all-white law school at the University of Arkansas (U of A) at Fayetteville. While the university’s policies on race were clear, the Supreme Court had recently opened up the formerly segregated graduate school at the University of Missouri to African Americans; with suits seeking similar change under review in Oklahoma and Texas, administrators at U of A looked for ways to address the increasingly volatile situation.

Hearing nothing from the university and with another school year getting under way, Davis spent the 1946–47 school year doing graduate work in economics at Atlanta University.

His application to the U of A was denied, but he was determined to apply again. Meanwhile, Robert Leflar, dean of the law school, recognized the legal inevitability that the Supreme Court’s Missouri ruling represented and urged the governor and the school’s board to make the necessary changes. Consequently, in the fall of 1947, Davis was offered admission—under highly regulated circumstances, ones that included instruction in a separate classroom, a separate study room, and no direct access to the library or restrooms used by the other white students. It was, as one historian put it, an invitation designed to maintain “internal segregation,” and it was an invitation that L. Clifford Davis declined.

Between the realities of what life would be like under those conditions and the fact that he was about to embark on his third and final year at Howard, Davis decided to remain in Washington and graduate there. However, it soon became obvious that Davis’s application for admission to the University of Arkansas School of Law, as well as the admittedly restrictive offer of admission that he received, represented a first and a very powerful step in an effort that would, the next year, see a black student enter the law school—though under the same restrictions as those accompanying the offer to Davis.

Davis graduated from Howard in 1949 and returned to Arkansas, where he passed the bar exam and was admitted to practice on July 4, 1949. For a few years, he had a private practice in Pine Bluff. In 1952, he moved to Waco, Texas, and took a job teaching at Paul Quinn College. After being admitted to the bar in Texas in 1953, he settled in Fort Worth and opened one of the first African-American-run law offices in the state. He soon organized the Fort Worth Black Bar Association, while he also assisted attorney Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on the case that would ultimately be Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). In the aftermath of Brown, Davis zealously and successfully pursued the issue of desegregation back in Texas. He filed suits aimed at desegregating schools in both the Mansfield and Fort Worth districts, an accomplishment later recognized when a local elementary school was named in his honor. Davis also sought to use the law to end discrimination in housing and employment.

After over three decades as a practicing attorney, Davis ascended to the bench in 1983 after Governor Mark White appointed him as a criminal district court judge. He won re-election and held the post until 1988, when he moved to the district court. There, he served in various capacities, including senior district judge in Tarrant County until 2004.

Davis remains of counsel for the Fort Worth firm of Johnson, Vaughn and Heiskell, where he does primarily pro bono work, continuing the tradition he had established during his many years of volunteering with both Legal Aid of North Texas and the NAACP Justice Project.

Davis has earned numerous awards and recognitions, including the NAACP’s William Robert Ming Award and the Blackstone Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Tarrant County Bar Association. Davis has also been inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of Fame, and he was the 2015 recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Texas Lawyer. He received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the U of A in 2017.

Davis lives with his wife, Ethel. They have two daughters.

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